Difference Maker

Jim Pynn dreamed of helping the environment. He has done so in a big way for 38 years, the last 19 as superintendent of New York City’s largest treatment plant.
Difference Maker
Jim Pynn, superintendent of the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Brooklyn. (Photography by Sonny Maxon)

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On graduating from Brooklyn Technical High School, Jim Pynn wanted a career in which he could do something every day for the environment.

“My father was a civil servant,” says Pynn (pronounced “pin”). “I was the oldest of eight kids, and there was no money for me to go to college. I knew I was going to be limited with just my high school background.

“My mother was concerned about me getting a stable job with good health care and a pension. I looked at what civil service had to offer, and wastewater treatment was about the only thing in the environmental field that New York City had available.”

His choice of that career turned out great for him and for the city. Pynn is now superintendent of the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Brooklyn, the largest of the city’s 14 treatment facilities at 310 mgd design flow.

He has led the plant through a major multi-year expansion and upgrade, during which it has remained in consistent permit compliance. Along the way, he and his staff won the 1997 Uhl T. Mann Award for operations excellence from the New York Water Environment Association, and Pynn won the 2002 William D. Hatfield Award for outstanding performance and professionalism from the Water Environment Federation.

He credits his success to a strong team, good mentors, sound facility planning, and excellent communication with employees, contractors and engineers.

Up through the ranks

Pynn’s first job after high school was with the Consolidated Edison electric utility, but he had taken an entrance exam for a city sewage treatment worker job, the entry level position for wastewater treatment in what is now the city Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

He hired on as a sewage treatment worker in 1973, working on a mobile crew — truck-based personnel assigned daily via work orders from the plant superintendents. “We would go anywhere in the five boroughs to work on treatment facilities that needed attention,” Pynn recalls. “The trucks were outfitted with tools, equipment and supplies, and it was like a shot in the arm for a superintendent to have this gang of 10, 15 or 20 guys show up and get things accomplished.”

After five years with the mobile crew, Pynn passed a civil service exam for senior sewage treatment worker and became a first-line supervisor in charge of a service truck and a five-member mobile work crew. In 1983 another test qualified him as a stationary engineer — electric, and he worked in wastewater pumping stations and at the city’s 120 mgd Owl’s Head Wastewater Treatment Plant in Brooklyn.

A year later he was promoted to deputy superintendent at Owl’s Head. “From 1984 until 1992, I was the deputy superintendent for operations and construction there,” says Pynn. “It’s about a third the size of Newtown Creek, but my experience there enabled me to see what a $400 million construction job looks like.” The experience would serve him well when he took his present assignment in 1992.

Major construction

The Newtown Creek activated sludge plant serves a 25-square-mile area that includes parts of the boroughs of Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens. Pynn oversees 67 operators and mechanics, 50 at the plant and the rest at the massive 500 mgd-capacity Manhattan Pump Station, which conveys wastewater to the plant from Manhattan’s Lower East Side across the East River.

As Pynn came on board, facility planning was beginning for what became a $5.2 billion Newtown Creek plant upgrade, now scheduled for substantial completion in 2014 with the same 310 mgd dry-weather design flow today and a maximum of 700 mgd wet-weather flow.

The challenge, besides keeping the plant online and in compliance, was “to build that new facility around the largest existing plant the city had, in a residential and commercial area, without compromising our ability to be a good neighbor,” says Pynn.

“We had an enormous amount of truck traffic, noise, dust, and sometimes odor, and all of those issues were on my mind all the time. Running the facility was one thing, but not being a burden to the community was a paramount concern at all times.”

Consistent performance

Construction began in 1998 and proceeded in three stages (“batteries” in Pynn’s word). In June 2009, the last section of the existing plant (built in 1976), was taken out of service, and all the flow was then passing through eight new aeration tanks with fine-bubble diffusers and 16 new final clarifiers in an upgraded facility two-thirds finished.

“It was at that point we felt we had all the tools in place to achieve good effluent quality — although there was very little redundancy,” Pynn says. “Since then, even though the upgrade is not complete, we have outperformed our Clean Water Act permit standard of 85 percent removal on both the TSS and CBOD. It surprised everyone, especially the regulatory agencies, which are very happy with our performance.

“The final battery of the new plant is to be finished by the end of 2014, and it’s really necessary to bring us up to a normal amount of redundant equipment to sustain our treatment capacity and the effluent quality we have achieved.”

Willing to share

Pynn knows the plant’s success would not be possible without a quality team that includes deputy superintendents Eric Klee, Anthony Fisher and Robert Grandner. “I have a great group of deputy superintendents and a wonderful group of engineers and first-line supervisors,” he says.

He keeps his team engaged through open communication. “I make sure no one knows any less than I do,” he says. “There are no secrets. We have a meeting twice a day, a morning and an afternoon meeting, in which we discuss what has to be done. We do it to manipulate the resources needed to keep the facility running and to coordinate with all the construction that’s still going on.

“The miracle of this whole project has been that not one drop of sewage has been spilled during the entire 17 years we’ve been working so far. Being able to repair and maintain and operate, as well as design and construct, all at the same time on our 53-acre parcel — I’m extremely proud of that.

“I work equally well with the construction managers and contractors. Most of the people on both sides of that equation know me on a personal basis. I’m always in the field, and we get a quick response to any issue or problem. We don’t let things fester.”

Stepping up big

An October 2006 incident shows how Pynn and his team can rise to a challenge. A contractor was close to commissioning 16 grit tanks, four aeration tanks, and eight final clarifiers, along with a new control building containing the return activated sludge, waste activated sludge and effluent pumps and a great deal of electrical equipment.

“We were a couple of weeks away from finishing that, and we had an enormous early-winter storm in the New York area that was overwhelming our capacity,” Pynn recalls. “It was around five o’clock in the afternoon. We knew the storm was predicted to get worse, so the operations and construction teams and the senior management of DEP decided to take the facility over early.

“That was one of my most memorable nights. We worked completely through the night — we didn’t eat, we didn’t stop. By the next morning, we had commissioned the first one-third of the brand-new plant into service, and it performed beautifully.

“That meant putting the blowers on for the first time. These were 13,000-volt, 2,500 hp, 35,000 cfm blowers, and we had to get them all started. We had to get all those brand-new pumps running. We had to get the collection mechanisms going. We had to get the hydraulics right, balancing the flow through each of the four aerators and eight clarifiers. We had a massive amount of work to do.

“We pulled in all the day people and all of my senior staff, the contractors’ senior staff and startup people, the electricians and laborers, the instrumentation folks. The construction management inspection team was on duty throughout. Everyone we could get, we had on site that night. It had been a very successful 16 or 18 hours by the time we were able to say, ‘That’s it, we can go home now.’”

Many mentors

Pynn is grateful for the mentors he has had over the years, many now retired. “I can tell you, not having a formal education, I have benefited from being involved and interacting with the diverse and highly educated and technical group that I come across almost every day,” he says.

“The best thing that happens to me is to have a problem, because it seems that just increases my ability to learn. Have a problem, meet the right people, gather the right team, and together you come out with a great end result.”

Early in his career, Pynn drew encouragement from John Donnellon, deputy director in the Bureau of Wastewater Treatment. “John was a real hands-on guy,” he recalls. “When I was in my earlier roles, he helped me recognize that there was a future for me in a higher management position. I never forgot him for that.”

He also praises Caswell Holloway, DEP commissioner, appointed two years ago by mayor Michael Bloomberg when his predecessor left for a private-sector job. “He came in, 36 years old, wonderful, energetic, eager to learn,” Pynn says.

“He has 6,000 personnel under him, and we have an $11 billion capital program. He inherited an enormous amount of progressive infrastructure that has made New York City unique, in that we’re always thinking 100 years down the road. This is not about fixing today’s or tomorrow’s problems; this is about expanding and making sure that New York City stays at the top in water and wastewater conveyance.

“Caz really made an effort to learn about and understand all the major projects. He paid special attention to Newtown Creek, and I was very proud of the interest he took. He even brought Mayor Bloomberg around on Christmas morning two years ago to meet the troops. It was heartwarming to hear the mayor being appreciative of the people who have to work at odd times, when everyone else is enjoying themselves, to keep New York City environmentally safe.”

On toward completion

As he contemplates the rest of his career, Pynn looks forward to seeing the balance of the Newtown Creek upgrade put into service. “I’m very amazed, and so are some of the designers, at the level of treatment we’re able to attain with only two-thirds of the facility finished,” he says.

“In November, we’re going to put the first half of the last third of our new treatment facility online. I want to see the completion of the entire treatment process and see the maximum efficiency this plant can attain. We average in the low 90s in percent removals now, and it’s amazing to imagine we can get better — but we think we can.”


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